I’ll admit I was a little skeptical when I learned that this year’s production of Ghostwalk is taking place in a truck yard. Save for the Stephen King campy horror film masterpiece, Maximum Overdrive — about possessed motorized and electrical objects coming to life to slice and dice in true King style — I couldn’t think of anything all that scary about trucks.
I’ll also admit that I’d never before been to Ghostwalk, an annual Halloween-time fundraiser for the Santa Paula Theater Center that features lively monologues from the “dead.” But, if this year’s installation is any indication of the quality of productions over the last decade-plus, well, I would have left the skepticism at home.
The seven walking-dead featured in this year’s production aren’t professional actors, but volunteers from the community who donate their time to spook, move and make visitors laugh. These people, from all walks of life, tend to come back year after year as haunted spirits hell bent on telling the stories of their demise. The brainchild of resident history buff Mary Alice Orcutt Henderson, Ghostwalk’s founder and committee chair, the event is a collective nod to local history, as well as the theater’s largest fundraiser and a way to get your spook on.
After theater-goers park their cars at the Condor Truck Service yard on Santa Paula’s Harvard Boulevard, they’re gathered into a little group (25 max), complete with a tour guide who points out interesting historical facts along the way. Guests are instructed to bring flashlights to light the way through the truck yard — which turned out to be a fairly creepy place after all. It was a bit of unexpected fun on a night chilly enough to make the trucking yard that much creepier. Because it’s a working yard, a few trucks came and went, headlights glaring in the night, during our visit. It was a nice touch.
And so it was especially fitting that the first stop on our tour was at a crusty looking semi truck from which Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” blared oh-so appropriately from the radio. As we gathered in a semi-circle, out popped “Jake” portrayed to perfection by Lonnie Woodley, who told the story of Jake the Brake, a gristled-looking dead trucker with a thick, amiable Southern accent. I’m told that all of the monologues — written by volunteers — are based either on real events or events that very closely reflect what could go very terribly wrong.
Jake’s story, written by John Nichols, unfolded at just the right tempo and with a superb, jovial storytelling style. Like the other characters, Jake was wonderfully lit — by a light shining from the side mirror of a nearby truck — and perfectly costumed. An overall lack of gore — in Jake’s case, as well as with all of the other characters — actually added to the creepy effect. Jake looked dirty, pale and crispy around the edges and, as it dawned on the audience that Jake would spend eternity hanging out in his truck, listening to Johnny Cash, actually a rather tragic figure.
It turned out that Jake used “Jake brakes,” which are actually used on semi trucks but often banned in cities because they are extremely loud. Because of the cost of having to constantly replace brakes, our Jake only uses his Jake brakes, which, in short, change the way combustion motors work for short bursts as an alternative means of slowing trucks down.
Part of the fun was in listening to how the inevitable ultimately unfolds. We know what’s going to happen when Jake tells us he quit using his breaks altogether and let his little spider buddy build a web under the brake pedal. As it turned out, Jake was driving through Santa Paula one day, a town that, because of the extremely disturbing noise level, doesn’t permit the use of Jake brakes. It was then that, in order to miss a school bus and a pair of joggers, he crashes his truck into Santa Paula’s hospital hill. In the end, Jake is truly a tragic hero who gave his own life to save others.
The next stop on the tour was The Corpsicle, also by John Nichols, truly one of the very best pieces in the show. Performed by Donna Nelson in front of a cold storage unit in a truck yard warehouse, Corpsicle is the story of a perky German cheese-monger who gets trapped in the storage unit while the truck yard supervisor is away for a weekend vacation. Nichols deserves credit here for being a master of suspense — and Nelson deserves credit for her unyielding perkiness and fantastic German accent. Again, we watch, enthralled, as the ultimate story of her death unfolds.
We would have thought that sticking her nail file in a light socket (trying to short out the refrigeration unit) would have been the action that killed her, but it isn’t. It’s priceless when Nelson finally describes sticking her head through a set of fan blades in the “off” position. She thought that she had enough time, but again, nope. It’s creepy, sad and hilarious as she describes the way the blades sliced into her neck over and over and over again, with perfect glee. These people may not be pros, but you’d never know it from watching Nelson, and Woodley as well.
The next story, Phantom 309, adapted by Jim Kasmir and performed by Debra Delahunty, takes place just outside of a little diner on the edge of the truck stop. The story, based on a song, has a decidedly 1950s flavor and is told in rhyming form. It’s the most decidedly lighthearted of the collection, and is about a dead woman who rides a few hours a night with a spirit trucker named Big Joe who once gave her a lift when she was stranded, and still alive. Like Jake, Big Joe sacrificed himself to save a busload of kids.
From there, the group crosses the street to Harding Park to meet a woman sitting inside a backstop on the playing field. This story, called The Tale of Charlie Richardson, written and performed by Dee Ann Helsel, is the true story of Richardson, who was a star athlete in the early 1900s, and all-around wonderful kid who was pulled away in a rip tide and drowned. Helsel, with a very realistic, absolutely heartbreaking quality, portrays the young man’s mother, who is sitting on the field waiting for her son to return so he can explain to his coach — who taught him to fight and never give up — that the drowning wasn’t his fault. The woman explains that you can’t fight a rip tide, and that Charlie’s fighting nature led to his death.
Next up is One Man Out, performed on the night I visited by Karl Michalson, and to be performed for the rest of the run by Santa Paula Police Chief Steve MacKinnon. Michalson has the perfect blend of “aw, schucks” sweetness and incredulous questioning to be utterly convincing as an old-time baseball player who has no idea he’s dead. Seeing Michalson in the old-style uniform, talking to invisible characters who can’t see him, was wonderfully reminiscent of Field of Dreams.”
The last two pieces, Gaspar the Friendly Ghost performed by Louie Henghold and written by Jeff G. Rack; and The Cursed Cadillac, performed by Kirk Martin and written by Henderson, were fitting ends to a ghostly night.
The shadowy, confused Henghold — who, I am told, is a Ghostwalk staple — is wonderful as Portola, the Spanish conquistador in search of Monterey Bay. He walks out into the night in armor, looking for his men and ultimately asking his audience, “Is this place, California, worth it?” It was chilling when everyone answered, “Yes.”
In the most offbeat installation, Martin portrayed the sharply-dressed spirit of a 1929 Cadillac that once belonged to one of Henderson’s relatives. Standing beside the real Cadillac, Martin, dressed in head-to-toe period white, talks about the history of the car, its former owner, a serious collision it suffered and its ultimate restoration.
When the tour was over and the group gathered back at the truck yard, I felt satisfyingly spooked. The event, which was over in about an hour, was part creep show, part history lesson and part community bonding. Getting your spook on in Santa Paula is even easier than I’d imagined.